Bradford, Rams ready to take a giant leap forward in NFC West

by | Senior NFL Columnist

With all the talk about San Francisco and Seattle lapping the NFC West ... if not the NFC itself ... it's hard to remember that we need to pay attention to St. Louis, too.

One reason is the Rams' defense. It's tough, physical and difficult to solve. The second is what happened last year. The Rams had the best record in the division and didn't lose to San Francisco. But it's the third reason I want to address because the third reason is Sam Bradford.

With the exit of running back Steven Jackson, the Rams belong to their fourth-year quarterback. He's not just the focus of the offense; he's the focus of the entire team, with St. Louis going only as far as Bradford can take it.

Of course, that's what leaders do, and Bradford is the leader of the St. Louis Rams. It's his job not only to demonstrate that he's one of the game's most promising and underrated young quarterbacks, but to prove that the Rams are closer to San Francisco and Seattle than most of us believe.

"People can talk about those two teams all they want because in the offseason that's all it is ... talk," said Bradford. "We know that once the season starts is when everything gets real.

"If you look at what we were able to do last year against the division, we had the best record (4-1-1) in arguably the best division in football. I think that shows how close we are to being put in a sentence with those two teams.

"Now, give them credit. They were very good last year. With San Francisco making it to the Super Bowl and almost winning it, they deserve all the credit that people are giving them right now. But if we go out and play to our potential and play the way we know we can, I don't think it will be that long before people start realizing there are not just two elite teams in the division. I think we could be thrown into that conversation, too."

But that depends on the development of Bradford, and finally, mercifully, the Rams understand. After losing Jackson and Danny Amendola to free agency, they took steps to make their quarterback better. First of all, they drafted a pair of long-overdue outside weapons in rookies Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. Then they added quality offensive linemen in free-agent left tackle Jake Long and rookie center Barrett Jones.

Now, the rest is up to Bradford, who last year had a better passer rating than Andrew Luck, Jay Cutler and Matt Stafford, and, yes, I think he's up to it. In fact, I say he takes a giant step forward this season, and I say the Rams do, too.

"I'm really excited about what we've done this year," he said. "I think this is one of the first years where there's been a very conscious effort to bring people in on the offensive side of the ball. I'm just excited to work with everyone we've added, and I'm looking forward to having this offense come together and form an identity."

So are a lot of people in St. Louis. It's been too many years since "The Greatest Show on Turf" dazzled audiences, destroyed opponents and put the Rams at or near the top of the NFL. Not only haven't they had a winning season in eight years; they ranked no higher than 23rd in offense the last six.

But that was before the club woke up to Bradford and realized he can't lead if he's handcuffed. By acquiring Austin, the most explosive playmaker in this year's draft, as well as Bradley ... then adding Long to protect Bradford's back ... the Rams made it clear who the centerpiece of this organization is.

"I would agree (it's my team to lead)," he said. "Obviously, 'Jack' (Jackson) was a key piece of this offense and this organization for a long time. He was looked at as the cornerstone and the leader of not only this offense but this team. And so, with his departure this offseason, there's definitely a big role and a big void to fill -- just as far as his leadership abilities -- and I think that gives me the opportunity to step up and be that leader.

"I always felt I've been a leader, but with 'Jack' here it was still his team, and he was the one that guys looked to. I hope I can become that guy this year."

The Rams do, too. Because they're closing in on Seattle and San Francisco ... and if you don't know that, too bad. Sam Bradford does, and he has more than a supporting cast to do something about it. He has the opportunity.


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